Why the Hawks don't regret betting on Dennis Schroder

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Dennis Schroder is averaging 24.4 points and 7.2 assists this postseason. (AP)
Dennis Schroder is averaging 24.4 points and 7.2 assists this postseason. (AP)

Dennis Schroder was back home in Germany, riding around in his car last summer when his cellphone started ringing incessantly and the text messages flooded in at such an alarming rate that he had to pull over. Schroder checked his Instagram account and immediately understood the hysteria: The Atlanta Hawks were dealing Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers, meaning that the starting point-guard spot that Schoder so desired, and shamelessly declared should be his, was suddenly going to belong to him.

A three-year journey that included stints in the NBA Developmental League, battling with Shelvin Mack for backup minutes and eventually siphoning minutes from an All-Star in Teague ended with Schroder earning the chance to turn that erratic electricity into consistent efficiency as a floor general. Schroder had pushed for an opportunity anywhere but it meant more that the franchise that drafted him, the one with the longest active streak of postseason appearances in the Eastern Conference, chose to place him in charge over a more established player.

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“I was really surprised. But it was my dream and you know, I worked hard for it,” Schroder told The Vertical. “That’s why I made it clear to everybody that’s my goal, to run a team and I’m ready for it. They trusted me, you know – my teammates, coaching staff, organization. Put the keys in my hand, for this team … I didn’t have no fear.”

That spunky, stubborn desire to prove that he belongs has been the engine for the Hawks as Schroder has rewarded the organization for its shrewd decision to begin an awkward transition without a dramatic rebuild. And, along with four-time All-Star Paul Millsap, Schroder has been a primary reason for why the Hawks have provided a greater challenge than expected against the heavily favored Washington Wizards in their seven-game, first-round series. Schroder has been an annoying foil to All-Star counterpart John Wall, whose Wizards lead the series 3-2, and offered some promise for the future with his superb production.

Schroder has been a pest, or perhaps a menace, for much of his time in the league and even has some history with Wall. When the Hawks and Wizards met in the second round two years ago, Schroder was coming off the bench but still managed to irk Wall, who was inadvertently undercut by Teague in the first game of that series, causing Wall to break bones in his hand and wrist. Wall returned after missing three games but claims that Schroder was encouraging his teammates to slap down on the injury – a claim Schroder has denied. Schroder also posted a photo of himself and Kent Bazemore mocking a dejected Wall after a Game 5 loss in that 2015 series. That past has provided some extra tension for this series whose most indelible image through the first five games has been Wall sprinting the length of the court, dunking over Schroder, giving him a death stare and shouting, “[Expletive] wrong with you, boy?”

Not only has Schroder refused to recoil – trading buckets with Wall and showing Bradley Beal that he isn’t the only 23-year-old on the floor with some upside – but he has also flustered Wall with some confounding comments, such as his desire to work out with the four-time All-Star this summer. Wall didn’t sound so enthused by that proposal. But Schroder’s gall to even make such a statement hinted at who he is and what he hopes to make of his career. That funky blond patch of hair on the left side of his head is there because his mother, Fatou – a hairdresser from Gambia – encouraged him to get it in order to stand out in his first season in the German league. He has no desire to be ignored.

Dennis Schroder drives against the Wizards’ Bojan Bogdanovic. (AP)
Dennis Schroder drives against the Wizards’ Bojan Bogdanovic. (AP)

“I think every time I step on the court, I try to get better. Try to help my teammates win the game or make the best decision I can make,” Schroder told The Vertical. “It’s tough. You’ve just got to stick with it. Coaches, they’re telling me, ‘You’ve got to keep doing it. Now, maybe you’re tired a little bit. You’ve got to do the same thing that you did.’ ”

Schroder has the perfect coach to squeeze out his potential in the Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer, a former NBA Coach of the Year who has held Schroder to an extremely high standard from the moment the team drafted him 17th overall in 2013. Budenholzer wouldn’t play Schroder until he trusted the youngster was ready – and he took extreme measures in Schroder’s rookie year, once immediately calling a timeout to remove him from a game because his jersey was untucked. Schroder would eventually earn Budenholzer’s trust and caught the attention of management during the Hawks’ 60-win season in 2014-15, when he won his first eight games starting in place of Teague. Last season, the Hawks felt they had two starting-caliber point guards but realized they would have to make a choice. With Teague set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and being a more attractive trade asset, the Hawks flipped him in a three-way deal that yielded the draft pick that became Taurean Prince, a rookie swingman starting in his first postseason. The Hawks then gave Schroder a four-year, $70 million extension that supported their commitment.

“Dennis’ competitive spirit and his competitive nature, I think we’re always going to bet on that first,” Budenholzer said. “He puts in time. He wants to be really good. He’s got a lot of confidence but it’s laced with some humility, and he knows that he’s got a long ways to go.”

Budenholzer said Schroder “might try to do too much on occasion” but the Hawks have always encouraged him to be aggressive while keeping his teammates involved. With those long arms, wiry frame and noticeable edge, Schroder has supported those comparisons to Rajon Rondo before entering the league. He glides on the court as if he’s still negotiating the skate park on his board in his hometown of Braunschweig, taking off for unexpected dunks or sliding back for step-back 3-pointers.

Schroder’s season hasn’t been without head-scratching moments. He has met the challenge of competing with the best but has also had some momentary lapses in judgment. Budenholzer famously benched Schroder for the final 21 minutes of a loss to Golden State after he got into an argument with Dwight Howard over a poor pass and allowed Stephen Curry to make an uncontested 3-pointer. That incident came shortly after Schroder was late for the team bus and was forced to come off the bench for a game at Orlando. And that incident came a day after Schroder had served a one-game suspension for arriving late from a visit home during the All-Star break because of complications with his visa. His All-Star weekend plans will be different going forward.

“I don’t think I’m going to go back to Germany,” Schroder told The Vertical. “I can’t do that. Coach, he knows I’m the leader of the team and as the starting point guard, that [expletive] can’t happen and that’s why he suspended me. Everybody can see, you can’t do that. I think it was good for everybody to see that. Now, I’m focused.”

Schroder has proven to be a quick study who finds motivation in past mistakes. In their final regular-season game against the Wizards, the Hawks were without Millsap and Bazemore, and Schroder committed a career-high 10 turnovers, an embarrassing total that had him fuming afterward. Through the first five games of this series, Schroder has a total of eight turnovers. He also became the franchise’s first player since Pete Maravich in 1973 to have a playoff game with at least 25 points and 10 assists as he compiled 29 points and 11 assists in the Game 5 loss. “I don’t care really about stats,” Schroder said afterward. “We needed a win and that’s all that matters.”

The Hawks have quietly positioned themselves to remain relevant without starting all over. They’ve moved on from Teague, Al Horford and Kyle Korver, plan to hold on to Millsap and could end up with five first-round picks in the next three NBA drafts. Schroder has offered some encouragement for their plan to go younger, with his first year as a starter offering more than its fair share of lessons from which to build. His duel with Wall has only helped him get better, regardless of the outcome of this series.

“Every night, you’re playing against the best point guard in the world. So you’ve got to be focused. You’ve got to get your rest. You’ve got to do everything so you can compete against them. All-Stars or whoever it is, you’ve got to step up and just try to make sure that you’re on point,” Schroder told The Vertical. “I think that’s the biggest adjustment I had to make when I became the starter. It’s still a lot of people counting on you, and I just try to be the best point guard I can be. It’s my first year. It’s going very well, for me, personally and my team.”

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